guest article by Alexander Henkel, Finalist of the SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award 2017 (granted by Maastricht U) 

Social Dynamics Of Service Interactions

Services have taken on a prominent role in society and service interactions are virtually ubiquitous. As consumers we constantly interact with the frontline of service providers and when we do so, we basically engage in social interactions. How such interactions evolve has potentially far-reaching implications that go beyond the mere exchange of products and services for money. Throughout my doctoral research I was intrigued by the antecedents and consequences of service interactions in light of the inherent social dynamics. Hence, my dissertation work provides multiple, complementary perspectives on these dynamics.

The first project focuses on how interactions in service eco-systems with complex networks of service providers help (or hinder) collective consumers’ goal pursuit in the context of families faced with the diagnosis that their child is disabled. The results have been recently published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (click here for the full paper). The second project (under revision) investigates how a service organization’s brand positioning affects consumers’ perceptions of its employees’ humanness, with equally thought-provoking and cynical findings. The third and final project addresses consumer mindsets and uncivil service interactions. The results of this multidisciplinary collaboration are published in the current issue of the Journal of Service Research (click here for the full paper). Below I will provide a synopsis of this project.

In this article, which is co-authored with Johannes Boegershausen (University of British Columbia), Prof. Anat Rafaeli (Technion—Israel Institute of Technology), and Prof. Jos Lemmink (Maastricht University), we focus on the tension between market and social concerns in service interactions and unravel the social dynamics of observing an uncivil customer-employee interaction. Our results demonstrate that by default consumers are guided by a market mindset when interacting with service employees. However, five experimental studies with European and North American data show that in the event of witnessing an uncivil customer (e.g., making rude or derogative remarks to a frontline employee), observers adopt a more social mindset and adapt their behavior accordingly. Specifically, observing an uncivil customer seems to remind other customers that humans are involved in a service interaction.

Figure 1. Market vs. Social Mindset (1)

Market vs. Social Mindsets in Service Interactions

Understanding when and whether customers follow a social or market mindset has broad implications. Firms and customers benefit from interactions guided by a market mindset, which ensures efficient, profitable conduct. However, service employees may pay the toll of diminished psychological well-being. The article identifies observing incivility as one process that can transform instrumental service interactions into social interactions by activating feelings of warmth within an observer. Thus, incivility dynamics can lead to prosocial outcomes, wherein observers adopt behaviors that potentially replenish the psychological resources of victimized employees and contribute to their well-being.

Our work also identifies boundary conditions to such prosocial inclinations of customers observing an uncivil interaction. Situational factors such as the employee’s reaction to an uncivil customer or blame attributions to the employee qualify the effects, determining whether and to what extent an observing customer feels warmth and offers emotional support. A noteworthy finding is that as long as the employee reaction is polite, observers show prosocial behavior, while their service related attitudes and intentions stay constant. An employee reciprocating incivility deprives him or herself of emotional support and harms the firm by sparking negative attitude in observers. Yet, a polite reprimand by the employee produces the most beneficial inferences in observers. These findings question the imperative of prescribing emotional labor as the gold standard for customer service, given its known potential harm for employee well-being.

Taken together, the findings hold clear implications for the management of service interactions. The recognition of customers as a potential alleviation of straining job demands, such as customer incivility, is a noteworthy observation. Employees should appreciate customers as potential agents for their well-being and recognize their own power to influence the guiding principles of an interaction. Firms should consider the usage of cues and tactics that can elicit social concerns and highlight them in employee training programs. Frontline employees should be cautioned to not reciprocate, or smile away the incivility, but instead politely reprimand an uncivil customer. Such a reaction combines the benefits of eluding the negative health consequences of engaging in emotional labor and simultaneously elicits social concerns in observers. The benefits are to the health of affected employees, and to companies who in the long run can profit from reduced employee turnover, improved working morale, and more satisfied and loyal customers.

Alexander P. Henkel is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Open University and the Business Intelligence and Smart Services (BISS) Institute, the Netherlands. For more info and contact information, please follow this link:




1Design by Alexander P. Henkel, based on template developed by Juliana Takeuchi,